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Moving pictures 2017, #17

The run of Chinese films from LoveFilm is still going, although only one of the two in this post from that country was actually a rental. We also have the re-appearance of Hollywood… although it’s a 1950s Western by a German director. And there’s a British “quota quickie” in there too.

Antareen, Mrinal Sen (1993, India). This is the only other Sen film I can find available on DVD, which is weird as he seems to be held in equal regard in Bengali cinema as both Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, but he also seems to have been working much later than Ghatak. But then Ray was the most prolific of the three, and has been championed in the west for years by David Merchant. Neither Ghatak nor Sen had such a champion – in fact, of the two, Ghatak probably has a higher reputation, although only three of his eight films were ever released on DVD outside India. The two Sen films I now own are both part of NFDC’s Cinemas of Indias restoration of Indian movies, and, I think, the only two by Sen in the  their three box sets. Which is a shame. In Antareen, a writer house-sits a friends decrepit old house – well, it’s more like small palace – and one day the telephone rings. He explains to the caller, a woman, that the owner is away, but they continue to chat. She’s in a loveless marriage and desperate to reach out to someone, and he’s lonely on his own in the big house. He sits by the phone, waiting for her to call. They become friends. Then they decide to meet. Sen’s films seem to have a gentler approach to drama than Ray’s. They also seem less stagier, too. Ray’s films feel like they’re often confined to sets, whereas the two movies by Sen I’ve seen are more cinematic. It’s a pity there’s not more available by him – he directed 27 after all, the last in 2002.

Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuiao (2005, China). I watched this twice before sending it back to LoveFilm, and I still think it needs another rewatch. The story is simple enough: the government moves a family to a provincial town, but all they can think about is returning to Shanghai. But their new life is never going to take them back. The film focuses on the daughter of the family, who is realistic enough to build a life for herself in the town but can never seem to do anything right in her father’s eyes. He meets with other volunteers who agreed to move to factories set up in provincial towns to ensure the survival of China’s industrial capacity in the event of war and they plot to return to Shanghai. His bitterness makes him aggressive, and he stalks the daughter. Things then go badly wrong for her, which precipitates the family into moving without permission back to Shanghai. After a couple of Chinese films that hadn’t really grabbed me, this one I thought really good – but then Wang was the director of Beijing Bicycle (see here), which I also thought very good. Annoyingly, those two appear to be the only films by him available in the UK – this is getting to be an all too common complaint.

The Seventh Veil, Compton Bennett (1945, UK). I had thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but that was apparently The Seventh Victim – a B-movie about a Satanist cult – and not this one, which is a great deal better, if overly melodramatic, but nonetheless quite typical of its time. Ann Todd – who I always get confused with Anna Neagle, and, to be honest, I’m not sure which is the better actress – goes to live with controlling uncle James Mason, playing that smooth-talking villain he did so well, who turns her into a world-class concert pianist. And he’s there to ensure she maintains the discipline needed to stay at the top. She, however, has other ideas – like: love, relationships, etc. The title refers to a piece of simplistic psychology used by the film – each mind has seven veils, like Salomé, and the psychiatrist, Herbert Lom, must persuade Todd to drop that last veil if he is to discover why she tried to commit suicide in the later-set framing narrative. (Hint: James Mason.) It’s melodrama with a capital M, and, I suspect, knocked out as a “quota quickie”. The film it reminded me of the most, strangely, was The Ghost and Mrs Muir, which has made a couple of editions of the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. Todd is probably The Seventh Veil‘s biggest handicap – she has to play her character from schoolgirl to, well, at least half a decade younger than her actual age – and is clearly Todd throughout. But Mason is certainly on top form. It’s almost as if the role were written for him – in fact, it’s a testament to his skill that so many of his roles did seem written for him. Mason deserves a lot more love than he received. He was one of our best actors.

Rancho Notorious, Fritz Lang (1952, USA). I’m trying to work my way through Lang’s entire oeuvre… which sounds like an admirable ambition until you discover how varied his oeuvre was. I mean, is there a typically Lang-ian film? There’s those early German silent films, and they’re all blindingly brilliant. But then he moved to Hollywood and churned out a series of noir films that weren’t all that much better than his rivals, although one or two did shine. And then he ended up with the quite brilliant serial-drama oddities that were The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. And in between he made… all sorts of stuff. Like this Western, starring Marlene Dietrich. It tries really hard to subvert the form, but decades it feels almost typical of the genre. A man’s bride-to-be is gunned down in a robbery on a general store, and he vows revenge. All he has as a clue is the phrase, “Chuckaluck”. He eventually tracks this down to ex-prostitute Dietrich, who runs a ranch near the Mexican border which she allows outlaws to use as a hideout, for ten percent of their haul. The revengeful widower eventually ends up infiltrating the gang in residence at Dietrich’s, but he doesn’t known which one killed his wife. I think I’ve said before I’m not a fan  of westerns, and the ones that appeal to me are the ones that make a real meal of the landscape… which this one doesn’t. It seems ordinary, and I’d expected better from Lang.

Paper Airplanes, Zhao Liang (2001, China). This is the least satisfying of the three films in this box set, chiefly because it deals with drug addicts, who are, to be frank, not very interesting. On the other hand, this disc also includes three short films which are definitely worth seeing. So, in total, buying the box set was a good move – and now I have to get myself a copy of Behemoth, because Zhao is really very good indeed. In Paper Airplanes, the addicts discuss their addiction, with a surprising lack of self-awareness, but a very informed awareness of what the addiction is doing to them and what its consequences might be. Some of the addicts are in bands, and we see them performing, but if they’re looking for salvation, or even riches,  that way then they’re deluding themselves. Of the three feature-length documentaries in the box set, this is easily the weakest,. Nonetheless, Zhao Liang is a name to watch, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for anything new he produces.

The President, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (2014, Georgia). Despite his stature in Iranian film, Makhmalbaf doesn’t seem to get Western releases to the same extent as other Iranian directors – pretty much the entirety of Abbas Kiarostami’s oeuvre is available in the West, for example, and yet Kiarostami’s Close-up is about a person passing themselves off as Makhmalbaf! Even Makhmalbaf’s most celebrated film, Gabbeh (see here), has never been released in the UK, so I had to buy a US release. So the fact The President is available for rental is a bit of a puzzle… although it’s not really an Iranian film. It’s set in an invented East European/West Asian country, but its cast are Georgian, it was filmed in Georgia, and the Georgian language is used throughout. Which makes it a Georgian film, even if Makhmalbaf is Iranian. I had noted Makhmalbaf’s black sense of humour in other of his films, but it’s in full force in this one. A dictator of an unnamed nation is ousted by rebels, and must flee across the country in disguise, with his young grandson. And… it’s beautifully done. The kid is by turns a charming innocent and a total brat, the dictator is angry, afraid, unrepentant but pragmatic. The final scene in which he is recognised by a group of angry peasants is like something out of a brutal Monty Python. And The President is quite a brutal film in places, and its humour is about the blackest I’ve seen – although not quite as black as the scene in Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar where an army of one-legged men chase after artificial legs thrown from Red Cross helicopters. Recommended.

1001 MoviesYou Must See Before You Die count: 857


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Moving pictures, #65

In this post, a new nation joins the roster of countries from which I’ve now seen films: Burkina Faso. I really need to get more of those Great African Films DVDs, as I do like films from African countries – as much for the variety as for what they reveal of life in the various nations on the continent. Other than the Burkina Faso movie, only the two US directors were unknown to me (and one of them turned out to be a Brit, anyway).

preciousPrecious, Lee Daniels (2009, USA). This is on another list, rather than the one I’ve been using for the past two years. And it wouldn’t otherwise be the sort of film that would interest me. The title refers to the central character, an overweight black teenage girl with learning difficulties, a physically abusive mother, and a child with Down Syndrome (who actually lives with the girl’s grandmother) fathered by her own father. The film is adaptation of a novel, Push, by Sapphire, and it’s pretty grim stuff. The mother is especially horrible, subjecting Precious to a litany of verbal and mental abuse, and the occasional moment of violence, throughout the film. Precious herself is an innocent, completely unable to see a way out of her circumstances. But then she’s given a place at an alternative school, and she begins to open up… in the process revealing her mother’s behaviour toward her and that her child is the product of incest (oh, and she’s pregnant once again, also incestuous, when the movie opens). The book’s prose apparently reflects Precious’s improved command of language as she attends the alternative school, but the voiceover narrative doesn’t make this especially clear. The film has been accused of throwing a bit too much at the protagonist, and although there’s a clear arc toward some sort of happy ending, it is pretty heavy-handed. Still, that’s what drama does…

american_history_xAmerican History X, Tony Kaye (2009, USA). Another film that’s on another list, but this one was also free to watch on Amazon Prime so… To be honest, the story of the making of the film is more interesting than the story of the film. In American History X, Edward Norton plays a neo-Nazi who goes to prison after viciously murdering two black guys, sees the errors of his ways after being sexually assaulted by another neo-Nazi in the showers and spending time working alongside a black guy who was imprisoned for six years for stealing a TV. On his release, Norton tries to prevent his younger brother, who has fallen under the spell of the same neo-Nazi guru Norton had, from following in his footsteps. These days, neo-Nazis get upset when they’re called neo-Nazis, or even just straight Nazis, but fuck ’em. They’re neo-Nazis. “Alt-right” is just as much a bullshit right-wing propaganda term as “political correctness”. Ignore anyone who uses either. But, American History X… Apparently, the studio were unhappy with Kaye’s first cut. And his second cut.’Then Norton hired an editor to cut the film to his taste. So Kaye played the prima donna, famously hiring a rabbi, a RC priest and a Buddhist monk to sit in on a meeting with studio bosses. Um, yes. The film has its moments, but Norton is too weedy to convince in his role (just compare him to the meatheads Nazis he meets in prison), and the whole thing over-inflates the success of neo-Nazism so much it dangerously normalises it. I’m all for rehabilitation narratives, but they need to be stronger than this to justify their existence. It doesn’t help that every black character in American History X is a gang banger, except for Avery Brooks’s mentor, which only just feeds into the whole neo-Nazi white supremacy thing. Seriously, films about Nazism and neo-Nazism should make the politics so unpalatable – as they are in real life – that no one would want to have anything to do with them; they should not leave enough wiggle room for an intellectually-challenged viewer to start giving brainspace to the toxic shit they peddle. We all know the dangers of “post-truth”, which is another word for “lie” or “fiction”. After all, 52% of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote even though the actual facts show Clinton won it by nearly three million votes. And don’t get me started on the lies put out by the Leave campaign…

sons_roomThe Son’s Room, Nanni Moretti (2001, Italy). And from the “look at my award-winning turn playing a toxic character in a toxic film” American History X to a drama that has a cast of human beings and deals with a very real situation. Moretti himself plays the father in a middle-class Italian family. Teenage boy and teenage girl cause the usual familial disruptions. Moretti’s job as a practicing psychiatrist means he has his patients’ problems as well as his family’s to deal with. Nonetheless, the family are generally easy-going, centred, good-natured, although attractive in a sort of lifestyle magazine advert way. And then the son dies in a diving accident, and the surviving three members of the family have trouble dealing with their grief. Moretti’s character replays over and over his last day with his son, when he cried off from the promised jog together because a patient had called him and asked for his help (the patient had just been diagnosed with cancer, it transpired). My only previous experience to Moretti’s films was his Caro diario, which I thought pretty good. That was a more personal film, although The Son’s Room covers such an emotive topic it feels a much more personal movie. I should probably watch more Moretti – he’s very good. Recommended.

great_african_1Haramuya, Drissa Toure (1995, Burkina Faso). As mentioned earlier, and evident from the DVD cover art, this is the second film in the Great African Films Volume 1 DVD I bought on eBay. This is pretty much a slice-of-life drama set in Ougadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. A teenager gets a job in a shop, but worried that his parents cannot affort to eat, he steals some flip-flops to sell, but is caught and fired. There’s a long-running plot-thread about stolen mopeds. And also a police investigation into drug dealing – which one dealer manages to evade by feeding his marijuana to an uncle’s goats… who promptly start butting each other and everything in sight. Haramuya is light on plot, but it’s also an excellent window onto a world I would not otherwise be likely to see. Toure’s direction is effective, but workmanlike more than anything else. The film comes across as a social drama, but structured as a series of interlinked narratives. The cast are natural, with only one or two moments where it feels a little amateur. Of the two films in Great African Films Volume 1, Faraw! is clearly the better, but Haramuya is still worth seeing. There are, to date, a further three volumes – 2 Tasuma and Sia, The Dream of the Python (both Burkina Faso), 3 Daratt and Desert Ark (Chad and Algeria), and 4 The Pirogue, Colobane Express and The Silent Monologue (all three Senegal). I plan to buy them (although I’ve already seen Daratt).

sonatineSonatine, Kitano Takeshi (1993, Japan). I stumbled across this in a local charity shop, and since I know Takeshi’s name, it was an obvious decision to buy it. Only later did I discover it’s the film which brought him international attention. And having now seen it, I can understand why. A Yakuza enforcer and his team are sent to Okinawa to sort out a dispute between two gangster plans but the enforcer realises it is all a plot to remove him. So he hides out with his team at a beach house, where they play games and tricks on each other… before it all comes to a violent end when the Yakuza boss turns up looking to resolve the situation. And, er, that’s sort of it. When the enforcers are hiding out at the beach, they act like kids. Takeshi, who plays the lead role, plays it totally deadpan, so the humnour is even funnier because it bounces off him completely. Of course, being a Takeshi, it’s also pretty violent, with lots of gun battles and violent murders. But there’s also a strong thread of black humour running throughout the film. For example, when the enforcers first arrive in Okinawa, they’re taken to an office building used by the clan. They’ve not been there five minutes when someone shoots at a window. What’s that? asks one of the Okinawa team. That’s just the other clan, they’re always shooting at us… This DVD only cost me a quid, and I fully expected to drop it off in a random charity shop after I’d watched it… But I think I’ll be keeping it. Worth seeing.

gabbehGabbeh*, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1996, Iran). Iran, despite its theocratic regime, perhaps even in spite of it, has a strong presence internationally in the cinema world, and has produced a number of excellent directors and films. Some have worked within the system, some have worked around it. I’m not sure which group Makhmalbaf belongs to, although the fact his name is important to the plot of Kiarostami’s Close-up suggests he has the approval of the authorities. And, to be fair, there’s nothing in Gabbeh that might offend them. It’s an Iranian fairy-tale, based around the style of rug from which the film takes its name. An old couple make their way to a stream to wash their gabbeh, and a young woman, who answers to the name of Gabbeh, magically appears out of the picture wiven into the rug. Gabbeh’s story is also depicted in the rug, which changes as the film progresses. She is betrothed to a young man, but each time they try to set a wedding date something happens to put it off. She tells this story to the old couple. As should be evident from the DVD cover, this is a gorgeous-looking movie. Recommended. And no, I didn’t pay the price show on Amazon, I bought my copy on eBay for considerably less.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 834


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Moving pictures, #49

How about that? A single Hollywood movie… and it was a rewatch (although, to be honest, I couldn’t tell you when I last watched Westworld – sometime during the early 1980s, I suspect). Meanwhile, we have just one film on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list too, and that was a rewatch as well (another Tarkovsky on Blu-ray, in fact). But, on the whole, it’s a pretty good half-dozen movies – and some of them are very good indeed.

kandaharKandahar, Mohsen Makhalbaf (2001, Iran). Although one of the first Iranian directors to come to international prominence, I know Makhalbaf best from his appearance in Kiarostami’s Close-Up. So Kandahar was sort of but not quite new territory for me in more ways than one, as it’s also set in Afghanistan (although I’ve seen Osama, also set in Afghanistan). I certainly had very little idea what to expect since it’s not a film that seems to be discussed, or mentioned, much in reference to “best of” lists. Which is a shame. It’s very well-made, has an appealing streak of black humour a mile wide, and makes a series of important points about the world in which it’s set. An Afghani expat now resident in Canada returns to Afghanistan to see her sister. She’s smuggled over the border in a Red Cross helicopter, but has to travel by foot to the titular city to find her sibling. En route she runs into Red Cross workers who deal with Afghanis injured by mines and who need prosthetic limbs… leading to a scene in which a horde of one-legged Afghanis chase after false legs dropped by parachute from Red Cross helicopters. There’s a simplicity to Makhalbaf’s direction that’s a refreshing change to Kiarostami’s films, although the black humour is of a different order too. (To be fair, I’m not sure why I’m comparing the two directors as their shared nationality is not enough to do so.) Kandahar is also noted for featuring Dawud Salahuddin, an American who converted to Islam and then murdered an Iranian dissident. I can’t quite figure how that it supposed to affect my viewing of this film, because I thought it very good, and I thought it him effective in his role. Recommended.

victoriaVictoria, Sebastian Schipper (2015, Germany). Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way first – Victoria was shot as a single take. The other famous single-take movie is Sokurov’s Russian Ark, and I am a huge fan of Sokurov’s films. In both, that single-take is a gimmick (and, it must be admitted, was considerably harder to accomplish in 2002 than in 2015), but… To be honest, it’s not actually all that noticeable in Victoria. I remember the first time I watched Russian Ark back in 2004 and I felt almost light-headed watching it, almost as if I could only breathe when there were cuts (of which, of course, there were none). And this despite having seen, several times, Hitchcock’s Rope, which famously he tried to film with as few cuts as possible. But I had none of that watching Victoria. Perhaps it was because the story flowed more organically than Russian Ark‘s – whatever the cause, Victoria‘s gimmick seemed much less of an issue. The title refers to a young woman from Spain who is working as a waitress in Berlin. At a Berlin night-club, she falls in with a quartet of young male Berliners and so is sucked into their plot to rob a bank to appease a ganglord who protected one of their number during a recent stint in prison. It’s a very good film and there are some blinding moments – such as when Berliner Sonne mucks about on the piano at the café where Victoria works and she responds by playing ten or so minutes of hideously difficult classical music (one of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltzes, apparently). Recommended.

pepePépé le Moko*, Julien Duvivier (1937, France). The title character is a gangster who lives in the Casbah in Algiers, and is wanted by the French police, who have sent an inspecteur from France to arrest him. But first, they have to entice him out of the Casbah. Which they do using his attraction for socialite Mireille Balin. I’ve said before I have a blind spot for early French cinema (actually, I think it spreads across quite a few decades…), and while I can see that Pépé le Moko presages noir film in many respects, I enjoyed it most for its depiction of the Casbah, a part of the world I know only from The Battle of Algiers. I can understand why the film was regarded so highly in its time, and perhaps for a decade or two afterwards, but there’s little enough there to wow a twenty-first century viewer. On the one hand, it feels like an historical document; on the other, its notability as a historical document is not immediately obvious. It’s a fun thriller, in French, set in Algiers. But it’s hard to see it as more than that because whatever importance it may have once had is no longer true. Worth seeing at least once, I suppose, but I’m not sure why it belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list as its appeal doesn’t seem abiding.

aprilApril and the Extraordinary World, Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci (2015, France). I know Tardi’s work, in fact I have all of the English translations of his bandes dessinées as published by Fantagraphics, and I’m keen to get more when they eventually appear. But I didn’t know about this film – although I did know about, and have watched (twice), Besson’s adaptation of Tardi’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec… So stumbling across this on Amazon Prime one weekend was a happy moment. And the film did not disappoint. The DVD’s cover art says it all: a pair of Eiffel Towers, serving as the main Paris station for a monorail to Berlin. Science-fiction-wise, the film is crude: a voice-over describes the world and how it came to be. In this case, WWI never happened, steam power was not replaced by internal combustion, and April grows up in a world denuded of trees. Her grandfather was trying to create an invincibility forum, and her parents continued the hunt – in a hidden laboratory, because scientists had been disappearing, and those remaining were being co-opted by the government. When the cops raid their lab, April manages to escape, and goes into hiding in Paris, where she continues parents’ researches. Years later, a street urchin hired by a disgraced police inspector tracks down April and so kicks off an adventure that sees her eventually reunited with her parents at a secret installation run by… well, that would be giving it away. Bits of the film, despite the Tardi graphics, reminded me of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a film I really like, but April and the Extraordinary World had the advantage of a bande dessinée narrative rather than a pulp one. I shouldn’t have been suprised how good this was, but then even French cinema can screw up a property when adapting it for the screen sometimes (tries hard to think of an example; fails). Definitely worth seeing.

westworldWestworld, Michael Crichton (1973, USA). I was pretty sure I’d seen this before, but it was clearly so long ago that I’d long forgotten details and what I did remember may well have been from what I’d read about the film. In other words, I might actually have never seen it before and only known of it from writings about it. It’s possible. It may also be true of other sf films. But now I have a date against my viewing of the film, a date when I actually watched it from start to finish. Of course, I already knew what to expect: expensive and sophisticated theme-park with mostly android staff, one goes rogue and shoots all the guests. The same scenario was used in the sequel, Futureworld, which I’d seen a few weeks before. But Westworld was the first and, more than that, the first film directed by Michael Crichton. Many might not see the relevance of that, but Crichton was an odd figure – a right-wing anti-science polemicist who created a series of pro-science properties that continue to resonate, and a man who abused his privilege to convince political figures of complete bollocks. Obviously, there’s an anti-science message to Westworld – robots bad! – although, to be fair, the “capitalism will make money out of absolutely anything” message comes across a lot louder. I was surprised at the quality of the print Amazon Prime streamed, and although the reference to an ekranoplan as a “hovercraft” (seriously, how can anyone make mistake like that?) did not bode too well, it was all looking quite good… But it didn’t take long to fall apart. Okay, so Mediaeval World bore more resemblance to The Adventures of Robin Hood (a great film) than it did actual history, and even the dumbest ass knows the Romans did more than eat to excess and have orgies… And yet, perversely, the Hollywood version of the Wild West seemed perfectly acceptable (perhaps because it’s that version you’d expect tourists to want to visit). I actually enjoyed Westworld more than I thought I would, and it’s certainly a better film than Futureworld, but it was still no classic. I’ve seen it now, so no need to ever watch it again.

andrei_rublevAndrei Rublev*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1966, Russia). Andrei Rublev is a series of excellent short films that are, ostensibly, episodes from the life of a famous painter of ikons strung into one 205-minute movie. Except a lot if it is invented because little is actually known about Rublev’s life. So what we have is, essentially, a drama anthology, comprising a series of high-quality vignettes – and high-quality not only in terms of cinematography, such as, for example, the balloon ride prologue, which does something pretty clever with a camera pointing down from the gondola. Then there’s the sequence about bell-making, which actually ends the film, and has nothing to do with Rublev’s life but is still astonishing. In fact, all things considered, Andrei Rublev is a hard film to write about, because it consists of multiple episodes. I’ve said before that part of Tarkovsky’s genius was the ability to lend coherence to disparate incidents – and while the life of the title character is about as concrete a link as you can get, Tarkovsky takes it more as a guideline than a plot in Andrei Rublev. There are eight chapters, not all of which feature Rublev, each of which illustrates some characteristic Tarkovsky has chosen to apply to Rublev. Some are amusing, such as when the Tatars mock the Christian paintings in a chruch; some are horrible, like when the Grand Prince has his men waylay the masons who worked on his palace and has them blinded. (This is one thing about history I’ve never understood – given how easy it was to kill people, why did such brutal rulers ever last more than five minutes?). Watching Andrei Rublev is an ordeal – it’s three hours long and your brain is fully engaged for the entire length (okay, yes, I have fallen asleep watching it on at least one occasion), and while it’s not my favourite Tarkovsky film I certainly consider a film that belongs in any self-respecting cineaste’s collection.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 805